I have suffered sleepless nights, but I do not suffer like Marie Darrieussecq. Her insomnia is another creature entirely, and comparing mine to hers would be like adopting a puppy and believing it’s the same as raising a child. Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia, translated by Penny Hueston and published by Semiotext(e), is at once an excavation of a condition, a collection of insomniac literature and art, and an argument for insomnia as a lens through which to understand capitalism and ecological catastrophe. It’s also an embodiment of the experience itself—I read with wincing sympathy and horror—with its wandering structure, its associative logic, its restless search for relief, and its use of lists, as though the author is counting sheep to try to create order out of chaos. This is a book about insomnia that is also a book about words, time, space, animals, technology, and, finally, death.
Darrieussecq did not always suffer from insomnia; she used to be capable of sleeping away long days and nights of travel, and her boyfriend at the time kept the insomniac’s vigil. Her own sleeplessness began with the birth of her children: “As my children learned to sleep, I unlearned.” She asks, “But how could I sleep, since they are mortal?” However, she insists that her children did not cause her insomnia, but merely marked its beginning. Indeed, the causes of insomnia are many and elusive.
Beginning in 2017, Darrieussecq wrote a series of magazine columns on insomnia, and while she “went back to the beginning” to write this book, it retains the feeling of a collection. “Memoir” is in the subtitle, but it doesn’t adequately capture Sleepless: autobiographical sections mix with history, literature, sociology, and current events. For the most part, the structure works through juxtaposition rather than chronological narrative or logical progression.
The book’s sections instead mimic the experience of the hypnagogic zone, “the half-asleep, half-awake state” that should lead to deep sleep, but for the insomniac, usually does not. This hypnagogic state allows one to “witness one’s consciousness morph into dream images, smoothly linked . . . everything would become white, white as snow, white as a sheet, white as a sleeping pill.” But whiteness does not come, so the insomniac floats from one daydream to the next, conscious. We are led in a similar way through the chapters, moving from the personal to the political and back, the sections at once dreamlike and vibrating with meaning.
Sleepless is a “pharmaceutical grab bag,” a phrase Darrieussecq uses to describe the “herbal medicines, narcotics, barbiturates, sleeping pills, hypnotic drugs, and all the rest” that an insomniac relies on for relief. Each of her many lists is an attempt to order the world: she numbers the cures she’s tried, the sleeping pills she has on hand, the hotel beds she has attempted to sleep in, the metaphors for insomnia she uses, and the books she has read. Darrieussecq often turns to reading for comfort during her sleepless nights and has collected quotations from literature’s leading insomniacs: Kafka, Cioran, Proust, and many others. Her gathering of books, experiences, arguments, and anecdotes is supplemented by images scattered throughout the text. These range from “insomniac selfies” to hotel rooms to bedrooms in abandoned houses in Chernobyl, and also include a picture of her “stash” of sleeping pills, enough, as she says, “to take care of the problem once and for all.”
Insomniacs are those who “dance with death”; their sleeplessness can make them feel suicidal and their use of sleeping pills can lead to overdoses. The book’s lists are also defenses: insomnia takes away meaning, and Darrieussecq attempts to create it. Sleepless is therefore a fortress of language. The writer has taken the words that spin endlessly in her insomniac brain and transformed them into the enclosed, orderly, tamed space of a book.
Her impulse to list and collect has the curious effect of creating both flatness and depth. Every book she reads becomes a book about insomnia: “there’s no end to this four-in-the-morning literature.” With wry humor, she says of Shakespeare that his “real drama was not-sleeping.” In Search of Lost Time is “the greatest book about sleeping pills.” Space and time collapse as anecdotes from across millennia and around the globe sit side by side. Madame de Sévigné’s 1671 inability to rest sits next to a 2019 lottery winner who can’t sleep for excitement. Darrieussecq’s world travels get reduced to that series of hotel beds, photographed and displayed in sequence across several pages. Insomnia takes away meaning, but it’s also a response to an overabundance of meaning—the mind just won’t shut down.
In the midst of this great flattening, a nuanced picture of insomnia emerges. It is not merely a condition afflicting individuals; it is a lens through which to understand inequality and a sign of global sickness. Insomnia takes on an entirely different meaning for the unhoused and for those forced to leave their homelands. In 2018, Darrieussecq was invited to report on the Congolese, Cameroonians, Nigerians, Sudanese, Somalis, Eritreans, Iraqis, Kurds, Syrians, and Afghans living as migrants in Calais. She arrived shortly after the destruction of a large camp where the migrants saw their sleeping bags soaked in gas. She then traveled to Niger to see a country from which people flee and where they return when there is nowhere else to go. She quotes Michelle Perrot: “The right to the bedroom was practically written in the Rights of Man.”
Insomnia takes on another meaning when considered on a global, ecological scale, becoming a sign of humanity’s damaged relationship to nature. Animal slaughter and extinctions diminish our ability to understand the world and ourselves. “Doesn’t it mean we sleep a little less if we treat animals as objects? . . . Doesn’t it stop us from sleeping, to act as if they didn’t exist?” Animals are looking back at us, and to ignore their suffering is to live with the unease of knowing, on some level, that it is still there. That unease keeps us awake. We forget or repress wild animals, as well as dreams and the vastness of the universe—all more mysterious than our minds can comprehend—because to remember and care for each of these would reduce our productivity in a capitalist system. By breaking ties with these elements, “we lose that part of sleep that is another awakening. And we probably hasten our end.”
At this point, Darrieussecq’s definition of insomnia becomes hazy, morphing into something more like generalized anxiety and alienation. But “sleep” carries a heavy philosophical weight from the book’s first pages; it is “the other half of us, our safe haven, our escape route. It is us, in our absence.” Lost sleep signals the loss of the animalistic, vulnerable, shadow parts of ourselves; insomnia becomes a way to talk about lost or diminished humanity. The title “Sleepless” carries two meanings that sometimes overlap and sometimes do not: the literal, and the broader, more existential idea of being out of joint with ourselves and the world. Not all of us are insomniacs, but all of us live in a world haunted by restlessness and loss.
Darrieussecq’s tone, as captured by Hueston’s beautifully fluid translation, helps create the flattening/deepening dynamic. The calm mood captures the book’s varied phenomena with careful, quiet, equalizing attention. I felt I was in the hands of someone trustworthy, capable of self-deprecation and humor, and of seeing suffering with insight and compassion. The tone is measured, but this allows depths of emotion to bubble up.
In Hueston’s translation, Darrieussecq’s writing often reaches toward poetry, and is a testament to the beauty and power of sympathetic observation:
There are sleep champions. They rest their head on the pillow and off they glide, hurtling down the slope. The wave curls. The sky opens up. Oceanic sleep. Their arms supported by atoms alone. With crazy ease, with an astounding knowledge of abysses, they never fall. But we insomniacs plummet into horrendous ravines and the bags under our eyes are bruise colored.
Sleepless could be read as a failed quest, but I don’t think this was its goal. Instead, it’s a book about living with insomnia that contains within it the feeling and structure of insomnia itself. It’s a sleepless text, company and comfort for insomniacs, and instruction for those heading off to a good night’s sleep. It is ever-awake and ready for the exhausted and the good sleepers alike to pick up in the morning.
Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia by Marie Darrieussecq, translated from French by Penny Hueston (Semiotext(e), 2023).
© 2023 by Rebecca Hussey. All rights reserved.